The NSA Has a Backdoor In Your Tinfoil Hat: Appelbaum’s Spy-Tech 30C3 Talk (the NSA doesn’t trust AES!) & Related Documents

(this covers both the talk and the corresponding release by Der Spiegel)

First off: Happy New Year everyone. For those of you on vacation or about to take one, take a break from your computer with a book: Hugo Gernsback’s “Ralph 24C 41+” — the plot is awful, but you’ll still be extremely glad you read it.

Right then —

At the time of writing, Jacob Appelbaum’s NSA spy-tech revelations talk has some 283,000 views.[1] It cuts off as he’s saying “I’ll be available until I’m as….” — but others confirm he was going to say “assassinated.”

Where’s the beef?

Let me digress with a bit of history. Hanssen and Aldrich Ames sold the Russians reams of secrets, costing many lives. If you collected all the documents Jonathan Pollard gave to the Israelis, you wouldn’t be able to fit them in an ordinary-sized room. And during the Cold War —
Teufelsberg, Berlin-based SIGINT analyst James Hall gave the East German Stasi a complete list of the NSA’s eavesdropping capabilities, 4258 pages worth.

Yet ex-CIA ex-NSA head Hayden calls Snowden’s leaks “the most serious hemorrhaging of American secrets in the history of American espionage. Look, we’ve had other spies […] but their damage, as bad as it was, was fairly limited.”

Well, for one thing, there’s one difference between what Snowden did and what the spies did. The spies leaked to foreign intelligence agencies, which could be relied upon to not tell the public!

Now ordinary sysadmins have started looking at their servers, finding NSA malware, and tweeting about it to Dell tech support:
“I just found out my #Dell server has #NSA bug in RAID Bios. @DellCares You obviously don’t care about your customers!”

(Dell replied, “[we] regret the inconvenience.”)

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that Appelbaum’s talk may or may not have been based on Snowden’s documents. Greenwald & Der Spiegel both have been careful not to confirm or deny whether the stuff came from everyone’s favorite indoor cat in Moscow.

And before 30C3 began, there was some controversy with an anonymous individual (possibly Nick Farr, but it is very unclear) claiming that he or she had recruited Appelbaum for the FBI in 2001, and that Appelbaum was jointly run by the NSA and CIA as of 2013. It was not clear whether this was honest — or intended as disinformation to deter Appelbaum from giving his talk & mitigate some of the expected fallout.

In either case, if the controversy had an effect, it was to goad Appelbaum into telling even more, so as to demonstrate his bona fides. (Therefore, I’m not sure anyone ought to be too pissed at the anonymous accuser.)

Why is it so much of an issue for the public to know? Little of the stuff that Jacob Appelbaum revealed in his talk was super-secret. BIOS malware, hard drive firmware attacks, radar bugs — these have been known for some time. But consider a straw poll he took of the audience.

Not too many people were entirely surprised by the software and hardware bugging… but only one person wasn’t surprised by radar bugs and related attacks.

(Appelbaum himself didn’t seem to quite understand them either, assuming they would use 1kW at close range, and that the “tracker” tool would be used to find people for droning. I’m sure the NSA has other ways of irradiating people to cause cancer, but operational security means they’re not going to use more power than necessary for exfiltrating data. And the datasheet for the “tracker” tool clearly explains it’s used for locating the hard-to-find signal from the bug-in-your-monitor-cable RANGEMASTER. Presumably RANGEMASTER’s signal is very faint due to the surrounding VGA cable ferrite.)

In other words, the concern is not that this information will get out to “America’s enemies.” They already have it — the Russians INVENTED “radar bugs,” fer’crissakes.

The concern is that this information will get out to YOU.

Let me take a break and point out a couple of interesting things from the post-paranoia press conference: “People are being bullied into suicide [Appelbaum] claims”[4]
“[Appelbaum] saying that #NSA will target you for dowloading TAILS or TOR. Yes downloading.”[5] “People who are very rich can always circumvent these things” — Appelbaum[6]

Anyway, getting back to the main talk, there were all sorts of interesting insights.


Remember #badBIOS? It looks a hell of a lot more plausible now. The modular architecture that Dragos described is very similar to what tha NSA uses. Even if there weren’t any documents describing the acoustic air-gap jumping technique, the program codenamed SWAP comes closer to #badBIOS than any other. (The STUCCOMONTANA program Appelbaum said was reminiscent of #badBIOS was actually meant for routers.)


Also, this need some emphasis, so let me add some asterisks…


Instead of using AES, they use RC6 to encrypt their communications with “implants.” This is important, because if anyone could decrypt or impersonate the NSA, that entity could potentially take over the network of hacked computers which allows Fort Meade to be “the great firewall of the world.”

It also means you can spot NSA malware by looking for RC6 over UDP. Or at least you could, until they change their modus operandi in light of Appelbaum’s talk.


The NSA also has a big focus on “interdiction,” the fine art of intercepting the computer parts you order off the Internet and bugging them en route.

Though he doesn’t show documents to prove it, Appelbaum claims they’ll replace plastic parts of your laptop with duplicates that have bugs injection-moulded into them. These bugs operate inductively/capacitatively, and need no physical connection to your machine in order to spy — or potentially alter data.

Interdiction also goes a bit further. If you order a Dell server, for exmaple, they might choose to add a special board (which is huge and easy to spot, so not likely to see use except on gullible targets) that goes in through the JTAG interface. Appelbaum ranted about Dell leaving the JTAG interface exposed, but this is not quite fair — according to the datasheet, the JTAG interface has to be reconnected during interdiction. Depopulated parts have to be soldered back onto the motherboard before the “hardware implant” can be physically installed.

Low-Level Access

The NSA is a big fan of working at really low-levels of your system. Not just the SWAP example I cited for #badBIOS, either. The IRATEMONK program implements the hard drive firmware attack independently presented at OHM2013.

It’s designed to compromise, for example, entire Internet cafes!

That’s right, the NSA was about 6 years ahead of the curve in developing custom hard drive firmware that substitutes out the MBR in order to execute code before the OS. And they use it survive past the frequent OS reinstalls when they want to surveill everyone in an Internet cafe.

Satellite Control

Using the IRONCHEF hardware bug, Fort Meade can reinstall their malware remotely, over the air. This works whether they have someone in the apartment next door, but sometimes even from a satellite.

IMSI Catchers

The NSA *LOVES* to impersonate cell towers. There are all kinds of gadgets in this regard.

Pull Your Wireless

Always pull unusued wireless interface cards. SOMBERKNAVE is a tool for bridging air gaps and exfiltrating data by turning on an unused wireless card and connecting to any local open network.

They’re In Ur Internets…

Taking the “malignant cancer” approach to network monitoring, it looks like the NSA’s eavesdropping partially relies on a huge army of hacked computers to do the dirty work.

For example, HEADWATER is a router backdoor to examine all IP packets that pass through the router… and there are many other tools with similar functionality.

According to the QFIRE presentation[7] the NSA uses a “vast system of distributed passive sensors” to monitor network traffic “as close to the source as possible.”

When a passive sensor detects targeted traffic, it informs a central C&C node, which injects a response using “active TAO assets.”

This allows the NSA to be a “Great Firewall” for the entire Internet. – They can censor what you read anytime, anywhere. (QUANTUMSKY)
– They can redirect you to pages that exploit your machine, as long as they know a URL you’re planning to access. (QUANTUMINSERT) – They can take control of your IRC bots. (QUANTUMBOT)
– They can even corrupt file uploads and downloads, ensuring you can’t upload or download data they don’t like. (QUANTUMCOPPER)

The incredible — unbelievable — thing about this system is they claim 686ms of latency from spotting your traffic to delivering the spoofed reply. Is this another case of American flab, or am I missing something? How can this work with that much latency?

But The Iranians…

Back into the “realm of what’s possible,” the Iranians still aren’t satisfied. After decades of seeing the full force and capability of Western intelligence agencies, they’re still convinced that what we’ve seen so far is just a tiny part of what the NSA can actually do. In fact, they think these leaks are a “CIA limited hangout.”

I’m not entirely convinced. The problem that the hackers have is one of chicken and egg.

In order for them to reliably learn about advanced technical capabilities, they have to have the operational and technical security to ward off intelligence agencies who REALLY don’t want them to have that information. (And resort to all kinds of subterfuge to that end.)

On the other hand, to develop that operational and technical security, you need information about the advanced technical capabilities…

[2] [3]
[6] [7]

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